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We can’t let the pandemic turn back the clock for women in the workplace

Lauren Crowley
Lauren Crowley
8th March 2021

Last year, International Women’s Day came a few days after the first Coronavirus death was registered in the U.K. What would happen in the coming year was scarcely imaginable.

We are now in a world barely recognisable to the one we were in a year ago. The way we live, the way we interact with one another and go about our daily lives has changed in innumerable ways.

Not all of these changes have been negative. Any increased flexibility offered to workers, whether that be with hours or workplaces, can be a positive thing, as it is managed to the benefit of workers.

The lives of many people have been improved without hours of daily commuting, and the removal of barriers presented by geographical distance can better our way of working.

However we must ensure that workers, particularly women and disabled workers, do not see the unwinding of hard-won workplace protections in this cultural shift.

There can be no question that the pandemic has had a disproportionate negative impact on women, and has resulted in a setback on equality for women in the workplace.

Over the past few months, Community has surveyed our members to find out more about their experiences of the pandemic. The findings have been stark.

Our research found that women are statistically more likely to report they have been fired/rehired or made to accept reduced working conditions in the last year, as well as more likely to have requested to work from home but had this request denied.

Three in ten of women members reported that they are working more hours now than before the pandemic, compared to three in twenty men. 62% of women say their mental health has gotten worse over the last twelve months, a higher figure than that of men.

These findings create a concerning picture of the gender disparity in the impact of the pandemic – but they have been far from the only examples.

Throughout this pandemic pregnant women have been an afterthought, left out of official safety guidance issued by the government, forced to return to unsafe workplaces without health and safety risk assessments and forced onto statutory sick pay instead of furlough..

Perhaps no more so has our world changed than within the world of work. Working from home and video conferencing, previously niche, is now commonplace throughout society.

As the return to normal life appears to be in sight and we are faced with a post-Covid world, there is an opportunity to ensure that this marks the start of a permanent shift in our working habits to retain any benefits we’ve gained.

We must be sure to safeguard the progress made and guard against complacency, recognising that there is so much more still to be done to address the growth in inequality we’ve seen over the last year.

Social media today is awash with organisations marking International Women’s Day. But to truly value and empower women, and to work for gender equality in the workplace, efforts must go much further than posting on Twitter or Facebook.

Workplaces should put in meaningful action plans to address gender wage gaps, and the conditions in which their women employees work.  There should be full openness on the gender breakdown of an organisation’s workforce, not just as a whole but at each different organisational level all the way up to senior management and executives. There should be transparency about pay, so that women can knowledgeably negotiate for and demand equal pay.

Employers should follow the example of companies like Zurich and provide properly paid paternity leave for at least 16 weeks to make sure caring roles are equally shared, creating equality at home which will follow into workplaces too.

The government should adopt Maria Miller’s pregnancy and maternity bill, to ensure a pregnant woman cannot be made redundant from the moment they disclose pregnancy until six months after they return to work. Statutory maternity and paternity pay needs drastically increasing, childcare needs much more investment, flexible working needs to be embraced fully, a default right from day one of employment and advertised as such in all roles, no matter the level.

These are just a few actions that can be taken by those articulating support for International Women’s Day today that would profoundly improve the experience of women struggling to have a family, work, and progress at work.

Coronavirus has already taken so much from so many of us – whether that be loved ones, our jobs or time with our friends and family.

This International Women’s Day, we must stand up and say that we cannot allow it to turn back the clock for women too.


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